CLGS offers inaugural Georgia Harkness Lecture

November 18, 2010

The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) has led the theological world in posing questions and finding answers to issues involving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and religion, but until Tuesday evening, one question the Center had not yet answered was what to call its annual fall lecture. Looking for a counterpoint to the annual John Boswell lecture in the spring, the staff searched for a name to lend to a lecture that would evoke the Center’s mission of promoting scholarship on the leading edge of religion and sexuality. They found their answer close to home.

Georgia Harkness, for whom the fall lecture is now named, was a leading theologian of the 20th century. She was the first woman to be hired to teach in a tenured faculty position at a theological seminary in the United States. After being passed over for an endowed chair at her former seminary, she came to Pacific School of Religion in 1949, where she taught until her retirement in 1960. In her struggle for the full ordination of women in the Methodist Church, her engagement of social issues of poverty, war, civil rights, and gay and lesbian equality, she was a strong part of PSR’s “Tradition of Boldness,” which led to the formation of CLGS.

Rebecca Ann Parker, who gave the lecture, said Harkness was “a liberal theologian who knew how to live in the tension of hope and fear.” She said Harkness’s determination to apply her incisive theological mind to work for justice came from the “social gospel piety that motivated her…a piety of determined hope, that orients toward what God dreams,” as expressed in the prophets and scriptures.

Although Harkness taught that Christians should not forget the mystical sense of “the beyond that is within,” Parker said she was ultimately pragmatic, arguing “against an unrealistic idealism, and an unidealistic realism.”

Parker is president of GTU’s Starr King School for Ministry, and a United Methodist minister in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist denomination. Her lecture was titled, “The Astonishing Fire at the Heart of Things: Reflections on Spiritual Stamina in Troubled Times.”

Parker cited the tendency among progressive people of faith toward constant and crippling dissatisfaction with the present. “Social Gospel liberalism is a great vision, but it often creates weary spirits… Compulsive striving to remake the world can create a spiritual hole.”

The drive toward an idealized future of justice, peace, and environmental healing often means sacrificing the present moment—and our connection with a sustaining spiritual force. As Parker stated, “Ideals do not administer spiritual assistance.”

Parker proclaimed, “It’s time to liberate liberalism from the conflict between the future and the present.” She said that setting up a spiritual rivalry between the present and the future mimics the oppressive dualities of a world which force choices between male/female, black/white, gay/straight.

Parker suggested a solution to this duality is to imagine a diversity of possible images of a just world. “Imagine multiple ‘Omega Points.’ Open our imagination to a multiplicity of futures—not simply cast as the opposite of what is wrong now.” In short, she suggested that liberal religious people “queer our ‘eschatology,’” or spiritual expectations for the future fulfillment of a divine commonwealth of justice and peace.

In order to accomplish this, Parker advocated a return of sensuality to spirituality, allowing feeling, observation, perception, eros, and human connection to ground us in the present, even as we strive for a better future.

She also advocated for privileging the “fleeting over the final,” to enjoy the value of small moments of progress in the here and now. “Justice is never attained once and for all time, it is never finally consummated. We hurt one another not because we lack an ideal, but because we fail to see the real in each other.”

The spring Boswell Lecture will feature Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng, assistant professor of historical and systematic theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Thursday evening, April 28, 2011. The video from the Harkness Lecture will be posted on the CLGS Web site, along with other recent lectures and programs.